Towards giving maids a voice

The labour movement announced earlier this week that it would be opening a new help centre for domestic workers at the end of this month.

This move by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) signals a new-found concern on its part for the welfare of domestic helpers, who were not on its radar previously. Unlike workers in industries such as construction, maids cannot be unionised.

Little information is available for now on the new Centre for Domestic Employees, but NTUC said it will be similar to its Migrant Workers Centre, which helps distressed foreign workers and receives funding from the Government.

The new centre was announced after a Straits Times report on Ms Mersi Fransina Missa, an Indonesian maid who has not been paid since her employer went into a coma last October.

It is unlikely that the case of one maid prompted the launch of an entire centre. Rather, Ms Mersi's is the latest in a worrying string of maid abuse or salary non-payment cases that have come to light - a trend significant enough to make the labour movement sit up and take notice.

NTUC possesses the financial muscle and political clout which non-governmental organisations such as the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) lack. Last year, Home sheltered about 700 domestic workers - including Ms Mersi - who fled their employers' homes. The most common complaints were of emotional abuse, followed by non-payment of salary and physical abuse.

TWC2, which does not operate an institutional shelter, sometimes has to turn away workers or refer them elsewhere, as its capacity is limited.

The new centre has the ability to substantially boost the help that NGOs are already providing domestic workers here.

But for it to be truly effective, it should go beyond being just a place for the workers to air their grievances. It should give them a voice and get that voice heard in policymaking, the way NTUC does for its unionised workers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2016, with the headline 'Towards giving maids a voice'. Print Edition | Subscribe